April 7, 1897, is the birthdate of Walter Winchell, the American journalist who was an early and pivotal force in developing and feeding the public’s appetite for gossip and scandal, and who used his powerful print and radio platforms both to titillate and to enlighten, to pursue petty personal quarrels and to intimidate those who did not share his political opinions.
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Over a period of some three decades, Winchell, whose name may be largely forgotten today, daily captured the attention of an audience of tens of millions, and had no compunctions about using his bully pulpit to make and break lives and careers.
Walter Winchel (the second “l” was added to his name on a theater marquee early in his career, and he retained it), was born in Harlem, in northern Manhattan. His father, Chaim Weinschel, was a Minsk-born son of a rabbi who came to the United States in 1881, together with his second wife, Fannie.
Walter left school after sixth grade, when he began performing in vaudeville. His first regular job was at New York’s Imperial Theater, where he was a member of a troupe called the Newsboys Sextet. A young George Jessel, later a very popular entertainer himself, was a fellow Sextet member.
Winchell began building a reputation backstage, where he would regularly post on a bulletin board reports containing personal news and gossip about his fellow performers. He soon began submitting the juiciest pieces of news he collected to the trade publication Billboard.
After returning from a two-year stint in the U.S. Navy, during World War I, Winchell began writing regularly column for the Vaudeville News. That was followed by the paper Evening Graphic. In 1929, he began a daily gossip column, “On-Broadway,” for the New York Daily Mirror, a Hearst publication. Soon, it was soon appearing by syndication in nearly 1,000 papers.
'Sees and knows all'
The 1,000 papers eventually became 2,000, and to that was added a weekly radio show. Between these platforms, Winchell had a regular audience of some 50 million Americans, which in the 1930s constituted about two-thirds of the country’s adult population.
The radio broadcast, which began with Winchell intoning, in his staccato delivery, “Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. North America, and all the ships at sea,” regularly reminded listeners about Winchell that “he sees all he knows all.” And with his vast network of informers lining up to speak with him at table 50 at Manhattan’s Stork Club, it may sometimes have seemed as if Winchell indeed was aware of every juicy bit of gossip that was worth knowing about the country’s entertainment, social and political elites.
His informants included taxi drivers and doormen, but also cops and FBI official J. Edgar Hooever. When crime boss Louis “Lepke” Buchalter wanted to turn himself in to the FBI, it was Winchell who brokered the deal, and when President Roosevelt was ready to announce his intention to run for a third term, it was Winchell, an early and staunch supporter, who received the scoop to report.
On air, his copy was delivered in a rapid-fire argot of slang, much of it made up by Winchell himself – getting married was “middle-aisling” or “Lohengrining” it, divorce was “Reno-vation,” and a baby’s arrival was a “blessed event.”
Unfortunately, as time went on, Winchell’s desire to use his power to settle personal scores grew. He went from being an early and astute opponent of Hitler and his followers in America, in the 1930s and '40s, to assisting his friend Roy Cohn, and Cohn’s boss, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, in their witch hunt for hidden communists.
By the late 1950s, due in large part to politics and to television, Winchell had worn out his welcome with the public, though he did not formally retire until February 1969, two months after the suicide of his adult son, Walter Jr. The following year, Winchell’s longtime common-law wife, June Magee, died.
Walter Winchell died of cancer, in Los Angeles, on February 20, 1972. His funeral, the following day, was attended, on instructions from his mentally unstable daughter Walda, only by her and by the officiating rabbi.